October 13, 2008

Workers and Jobs (1935)

Arthur Elton's Workers and Jobs was made at the height of the Great Depression in 1935. The then unemployment rate in the UK was incredibly high. Elton's film was made with the cooperation of Poplar Employment Exchange- it was made to illustrate the virtues of the employment exchange both to employees and principally to employers. The working men are shown in the film to be trained, good workers, quiet and disciplined. They queu towards the desk in the exchange without mumbling or grumbling as others are sent to the jobs that they might want. Furthermore the exchange is shown to be an efficient way of acquiring labour for businesses. I want to highlight two things about the way that the Labour Exchange worked that give us an insight into the economies of the 1930s.

Firstly it is noticable that as the introduction to the film states there are at least 15,000 types of work- domestic, industrial and clerical- that men and women can do. We see the employment exchanges taking notes on the applicants- their experience, their competence- what say a machine tool repairer has experience repairing or what kind of tailor this person is. Then they match them to employers. Its a fascinating lesson in the variety and division of labour within the economy- and the difficulty of matching workers to jobs. I suspect of course that the labour exchanges were not this efficient- Arthur Elton was making an advertisment for them- but what he demonstrates is rather that the economy by the 1930s was already highly specialised- as the introductory voice over says the costs of hiring the wrong person for a job were high.

My second point is that the Labour exchange of the thirties looks completely inefficient compared to a modern operation. As you can see in the still above, the model was based on telephoning other labour exchanges to check their vacancies. All the exchange functions on the back of card files- and remember this is an efficient exchange on show in a film whose purpose is advertising- one wonders about the status of those card files and how many records got lost. Furthermore printed sheets are sent out to other exchanges at the end of the day with unfilled vacancies on them- again the potential for misplacing, misrecording and simply destroying accidentally records must have been high. An organisation in the thirties could not afford anything better- but it is interesting to imagine how different a similar organisation would be today.

This kind of documentary is fascinating- just looking at the faces of these long dead normal people doing their business gives me a thrill. But I think it is also useful for seeing both how similar and how different the experience of the thirties is from today's. President Bush and others have said that our economy is teetering on the edge of another Great Depression- it is beyond my competence to say whether that is true or not- but if it is true, I suspect that the way that our society goes through that experience will be very different to the way that our grandparents and their parents did in the thirties. Not least because though they lived in a complex economy, they lived in a much more local and much less computerised one.

5 comments:

James Higham said...

It certainly was inefficient. It's a wonder they got anything done.

goodbanker said...

I'd suggest a different take: it may appear inefficient, but from what you say, the 1930s approach appears to have been more bespoke than many modern recruitment consultants are. ("We see the employment exchanges taking notes on the applicants- their experience, their competence- what say a machine tool repairer has experience repairing or what kind of tailor this person is. Then they match them to employers. ... the model was based on telephoning other labour exchanges to check their vacancies.") Arguably such a tailored approach has the potential to deliver better matches of workers to jobs, compared to the truly impersonal approach by the sort of modern headhunters at least that I've come across - they are almost invariably geared more to generating their placement fees, and less to perfecting the match between employee and their prospective employment.

As for the various operational risks you point out that the 1930s card-based index is vulnerable to ("the potential for misplacing, misrecording and simply destroying accidentally records must have been high"), surely the impact when such operational risks crystallised was trivial compared to various government departments' / their contractors' widely-reported loss of personal data in the last few years?!

Gracchi said...

James its a tribute to human organisation that they did it.

Good banker- to your first point that's quite possible, I'm going to confess that I don't know. My only experience is with careers services which seem to have a similar approach to the one I discuss above.

As to your second- yes there can be disadvantages with the modern way of doing things. Perhaps my comments come out of my own feeling as I watched these guys with their cards- that I would be useless with that system and would definitely lose or misallocate things. I'm not sure how much misfiling there actually was- but it would be interesting to find out and compare.

Anonymous said...

to be fair i ssupect when the systme relied on compentence with paper work people were more competent about it- just like most people would not surive socially without mobiles and yet did before 1995

edmund

Gracchi said...

Edmund I suspect that's true and something to bear in mind- I think we forget how something can become a habit and thence someone may acquire an aptitude for it.